On Feb 11th/12th 2014 I was sitting comfortably in the 212 bus leaving the busy early morning traffic in Belfast city centre heading back home west to Maghera. It had been a very relaxed and peaceful weekend which had revitalized my physical and mental batteries and as the bus entered the slip way onto the battleground of the M1 motorway I couldn't help but sense that the time for relaxing was over and life would get very busy again soon. I had a powerful instinct for the previous couple of days informing me that a long photo shoot was brewing and although I hadn't planned on doing anything significant yet it seemed the universe was plotting in the background and slowly releasing a long slow drip of adrenalin into my body. The seeds of these feelings began several days earlier when I decided to check the GFS model run using Roisin's smart phone and noted with interest that the models were forecasting snow showers over the high ground of Ulster during the early morning hours of the 11th then more during the afternoon and evening of the same day so I made a mental note to get out and see if there were any photo opportunities to be had, the reason for this is that I absolutely love Winter photography and knew that with any chance of falling snow the chances of getting dynamic weather images would increase dramatically and besides, this has been the worst Winter for snow I have seen in years so I was jumping at the chance to get out in the action and take advantage of this open invitation from nature.
Once the bus exited the M1 and the landscape opened to reveal a flat horizon I felt that flow of adrenalin increase for straight out through the large windscreen was the Sperrin Mountains in the distance and on the slopes was a beautiful layer of snow all lit into white purity by the early morning sunshine and nearby to the north of the mountains was a large cell with fibrous anvil taking up a large area of sky, I wondered inwardly if it was producing any sparks however since I hadn't been online that morning I had no idea what was going on. As the miles ticked by that white mountain on the horizon began to grow in size and I noted, as more detail on the slopes became visible, that the best of the snow was over in the direction of Dungiven and Benbradagh Mountain, the latter looked like the gem of the entire system so it became my target. I was wishing the bus would go faster as I was getting concerned that the strong sunshine would melt the snow and in my mind's eye I could already see myself driving up that mountain having a great time taking images in the snow and I wondered with great anticipation and excitement what wonders may be waiting to capture on camera. I looked around the countryside and there wasn't a hint of significant snow anywhere except on the Sperrins and it was then that I felt truly grateful to live in such an excellent area where exciting weather takes place on a regular basis, I really love my home area and couldn't wait to be out in the elements once again.
Once I arrived home my plan was to get a quick brew, change into warm clothes then drive up the mountain, however that plan never got beyond the mental stage for I was informed there was an issue with car so it didn't look like there I was going anywhere today. I felt absolutely gutted after several days of building this up and it felt even worse knowing that there was snow 15 min's away by car yet I couldn't get it to it so I accepted the facts and hoped that the universe would take care of everything so I made lunch and got online to see what the situation was. Just as I sat down on my computer chair my phone beeped alerting me to a new text message so I read it and almost spilled tea all over my jeans, it was from David McKergan informing me of heavy snow and thunder - thundersnow! - in Coleraine area, well that information nicely confirmed my suspicions when I saw that anvil from the bus not long ago.
I then checked all online sources at double speed to gather as much information as possible, the sferics charts showed a number of c-g lightning strikes in the Coleraine area and near Donegal so things were kicking off and the Met Office had issued a yellow warning for snow briefly laying at low areas (but not for long) and with laying snow on the hills between 10 and 15 cm in depth, a deeper look at the GFS charts showed several hundred CAPE over north and west ocean areas and inland coastal parts so thunderstorms and thundersnow was likely well into the night however when I looked at the snow risk charts I was disappointed. Snow was predicted only to the north and west of the country and after 13.00 there was none predicted by the models for my area or Glenshane Pass for the rest of the night so it seemed it was game over. If that didn't knock me down I felt like I got kicked by an invisible snow man when I saw excited reports on twitter and facebook of very heavy snow falling and laying over Derry, Donegal, Coleraine, Portrush, Portstewart, Dublin, Fermanagh then Omagh - pretty much everywhere except where I live.
Then I got a private message on facebook from Omagh photographer Paul Martin who had also been watching the situation with great excitement, he too was ready for action and fully intended to do a photo shot and wanted to join forces, it was as if he was reading my mind (again) because I had been thinking the same thing however I couldn't get the car issue sorted so I explained the situation to Paul and he simply said ''pack your gear, we're going on a photo shoot!'', and furthermore he said ''I have a good feeling about this'' - I know from experience that when Paul or myself say that then something exciting always happens so I sensed a long night was ahead. I was delighted Paul was thinking the same thing and knew there was fantastic potential, he hit the road and would be in Maghera in just over an hour's time. As I prepared my camera gear, clothes, water, flasks etc I looked out my window and saw the first snow flakes of the day falling over Maghera, then the isolated gentle fall turned into a flurry then a flurry into a full on snow storm as large healthy flakes fell from the sky at high speed, the visibility dropped and the sky began to darken and within min's the snow began to lay on the ground, it was then that I too began to get that very good feeling.
It snowed like mad over Maghera for an hour and half and it couldn't have happened at a better time because sunset had just happened and the temps were dropping dramatically increasing the chances of more snow laying. One last check online showed numerous reports of snow widespread across west and central areas of the country with great images appearing on twitter then I heard a car approach, the engine noise was barely audible above the constant slaps of big snow flakes hitting my window, the street lamps were on and the neighbourhood already looked like a Winter wonderland. Paul pulled up in front of my house in the midst of a heavy snow shower and when he got out he looked up at the sky and smiled just as I did, it looked like Paul's good feeling was bang on yet again. We got in the car and hit the road, but where too?, we turned right and headed north as there were recent reports of heavy snow in Swatragh and Garvagh so we drove off in that direction however the scenes were that impressive that I was already taking images and video within min's of the car starting. This was the scene on the Coleraine Road between Maghera and Swatragh as we advanced north, this was snapped through the windscreen hand held at dusk with just enough atmospheric blue light in the darkening sky to get away with these shutter speeds before it got too dark.
17.30 UT. We didn't have a full plan of action yet and until we could commit ourselves to a location there was no need to drive around wasting fuel so we decided to stay local for the meantime and since all the good snow was here then why go elsewhere?, so we stopped in Swatragh where we spent a good half hour doing dusk snow photography of the Church and graveyard. It was really beautiful here but very cold and the snow kept falling fast which made photography very difficult however we kept at it anyway to get a good start on what could be a long night. This is a tripod mounted image, it was darker in reality than it looks on the image as this was a short exposure, you can see the snow blowing across the trees with flakes regularly whacking the camera lens.
Darkness fell so we relocated to the filling station in Garvagh where we got more supplies and sat in the car drinking coffee and high energy supplies while watching the snow fall over the bright lights of of the station and for a moment the moon appeared high in the east, a beautiful waxing gibbous phase with all it's Maria (lunar 'Seas' or impact basins) on view while in dark silhouette numerous snow flakes fell in dancing torrents across the glowing face which was a nice visual scene, then the clouds thickened and it was gone. We then discussed a plan of action and as we saw it we had two options, the first was hitting the Antrim coast where there was a chance of ocean lightning/thundersnow and moonlit cells as well has snow scenes then there was the inland mountain option for moonlit snowscapes. After careful consideration we dropped the coast plan because there had been no more sferics since earlier in the day and also the radar showed non stop showers forming in that area for hours to come so the chances were high we would never see the sky at all which would kill photo opps and furthermore the salt air might reduce the chances of laying snow so we decided inland was the place to be, not only that but it was an exceptional place to be because we would have a better chance of getting clear gaps (away from coastal moisture and instability) but we would also have the mountain where there would definitely be laying snow impressive enough for photography so that become our primary focus.
Radar showed a big cell with red echoes moving onshore over west Ireland and moving east making a beeline for the Sperrins so we hit the road once more through more falling snow then made our way up the mountain where we knew we would soon hit that cell head on. We made it onto Glenshane Pass, the snow was great as always and still falling and although the roads were getting concerning there were still areas of dark tarmac so it looked like we would be ok for the time being so we drove across the mountain heading west and got hit by that big cell which turned the flurry into a long duration snow storm and within sec's the visibility dropped quite badly and the tarmac vanished and so did the white lines until it got to the point that the ditch and both sides of the road looked like one.
We took a break in Dungiven where the snow was falling with intent so we watched from the car park beside the chapel as the snow fell over the street lights and town, I got a chance to film it hand held using the Canon 600D with the 50mm F/1.8 lens which took advantage of the ambient light to capture the scene exceedingly well, in fact, by selecting a higher ISO I could blow the scene out on video which shows just how good this camera and lens are on video mode. We were hoping to get a clearance and stars however it just would not stop snowing which was shocking so we decided to get out into the flurry and do some shooting anyway and see what we could get. Above are the trees and street lights in front of the Chapel, the snow is falling in streaks due to the short exposure.
20.00 UT shooting the chapel in virgin snow which was cast into this orange glow by the nearby town lights while big wet snow flakes splatted on the lens, against my face and into my eyes, I had to keep cleaning the lens after every exposure. It's a shame the sky didn't clear around this time for the moon and stars would have really made this scene, however I still like it anyway because it's a cool looking building with the added bonus of snow. In case anyone is wondering the strange angles on the chapel are due to the effects of using an extremely wide angle lens, in this case the Canon 10-22mm which has a massive field of view and at such large fields some distortion and curvature is to be expected. Paul was shooting the trees and lights down the path to my right then we met up and ventured around the back of the chapel to look for cool foreground, the graveyard was massive and looked promising however we never got a chance to check it out as the snow become animated, falling fast, sideways, and aggressive stinging our faces and eyes, we couldn't do photography and got chilled and soaked so we ran through the blizzard-like conditions and got back in the car and noted that the west side of the car had a thick crust of frozen snow rite up to the the roof while the opposite side was relatively snow free, that was cool to see and a testament to what the conditions were like.
We drove back across Glenshane Pass were the conditions had really gone down hill, there was other traffic doing battling with the elements, at times the road vanished completely and the car was sliding a little and Paul was getting concerned that if these conditions kept up we could get stuck here or that the mountain could get closed off for the night because it was getting colder and the snow kept falling however much to our delight we saw many gritters and ploughs in action passing us and no matter what time we drove up the mountain they were always there working hard, they seemed to team up at the filling station then head back up the mountain in turns with both sides of the road getting cleared, it's a good job they did because it was snowing so hard that once the road had been cleared the snow began to cover it again so thanks to their relentless hard work all night long the road stayed open and was passable with care so full credit to the road service for a job well done.
We took a break at the bottom of the Pass at the Park n Ride car park where the trees looked absolutely stunning covered in several inches of snow all lit into a striking orange-gold colour by the lights along the main road. Here we had a well deserved mug of tea and snacks, warmed up, then we went back up the mountain once more. The snow was easing a little and teasing us, it looked like it was going to stop and clear and just when we got our hopes up the clouds would thicken and it would snow once more, there seemed no end in sight as the radar showed more snow showers moving in. This was the first shocking surprise of the night, the forecast showed the showers dying out by evening time and the models showed none at all inland at this time yet they couldn't have been more wrong as the showers/convection were moving across N. Ireland in lines, this is what we call training where showers or storm cells form in lines or 'trains' and keep building without end, we began to wonder if we were ever going to get clear skies at all.
As we drove back up Glenshane Pass we were blown away by the epic snow scenes all around us, especially the minor roads which branched off into the darkness from the main, some of those junctions were spectacular with heavy snow covering everything, the tall pine trees which lined the roads looked like a scene from Canada and every tree branch was hanging down under the weight of the freshly fallen snow, it was truly amazing and we couldn't wait to get out shooting those scenes. Paul got the car stopped on the lay by on a layer of snow at just the correct depth which would allow us to drive away again without the risk of getting stuck then we went out into the night and began crunching our way through the snow. There was a nice bus shelter covered with snow which I captured with car trail then we ventured up this minor road which was packed with snow, Paul headed off to do his own thing and I hiked further up hill, the above scene was taken half way up the road facing back towards the junction, the bus shelter can be seen near the road sign at the bottom. The clouds were trying to clear by providing us with lighter sections of sky, a few stars appeared on and off and the moon light seemed to wax and wane through passing irregular cloud cover, the light was just enough to try out some photography, the snow was getting illuminated by partial ambient moonlight and nearby street lamps which gave this contrasting warm gold tone to the trees.
23.05 UT at the top of the hill, this road sign looked cool covered in thick snow so I just had to shoot it, you can see Paul at the bottom of the road. Behind me and to the right of the sign where several bungalows all looking cozy in a bed of snow which looked like icing sugar cast in a surreal sodium yellow from the few lights which illuminated the area. The snow in the gardens and on the footpaths was untouched so I was the first person to experience it which felt neat, the lights were off in the houses and it appeared the occupants were all in bed asleep, the bushes in the gardens had a good 4" of snow and all hung over the fence towards the ground which looked awesome, I tried to get close to one fence to shoot the scene however my footsteps in the snow sounded thunderous on this silent night and I feared I would wake up the owners. Paul shouted something up to me and I yelled back so my cover was blown so I headed back to meet Paul and he said there was someone outside the house watching me, I like to think that my position was given away not by my progress through the snow but by the stupendous glow from my high visibility jacket which no doubt looked like a night sun.
23.30 UT, at this point our energy was getting low and we began to wonder if our initial good feelings had been correct because we had yet to get any clear gaps or stars which stayed visible for more than 20 sec's at a time which was getting really frustrating and in addition to this it began to snow lightly again. Paul was getting annoyed even more because he had drove all the way from Omagh and he didn't want to come home empty handed either, we had one half of what we wanted - snow - however we needed the other half of stars and moonlight to make this night work. It seemed cloudy more or less all the time and the moon was shy, we needed it to be bold and bright because night exposures of snow just don't have the same impact as those with a clear sky, an overcast night shot will just look flat and featureless however stars add contrast, dynamics, interest and the moonlight turns the landscape into a white wonder, this is what we needed to make this night into a photographic success, visually it had been great however we needed our digital trophies to take home.
We began to walk back to the car at a sluggish pace feeling somewhat tired and defeated when I looked across to the other side of the road and saw this beautiful house in the middle of the countryside covered in snow and there seemed to be a narrow clearance with a few stars above it too and I thought that looks really beautiful, I said to Paul, ''do you think it's worth shooting?'', he said ''go for it'' then he went up to get the car ready so despite feeling tired and cold I got the gear set-up again and took an exposure looking through the fence with the house framed by the trees, I really liked it a lot and thought it looked like a scene from a Christmas card, there was moonlight too turning the snow white and I felt a surge of delight and positivity returning and I knew this was our turning point of the night and that the best was yet to come.
We went back across Glenshane Pas yet again until we reached the top then pulled into a lay by to think of locations. There was a good 6" of snow on the ground and the clouds began to part and the moon lit up the landscape like a huge torch in the sky, this was what we were looking for, the conditions were turning perfect but we couldn't shoot from here as we had already tried this area back in November last year and we didn't know how long this was going to last, Paul put me on the spot, ''come on Martin think of somewhere cool to shoot, you know this area''. The first place that came to mind was the old abandoned stone house where I had spent a lot of time shooting the stars and Milky Way over for the last year and a half so I suggested it with a good feeling brewing inside me and once again we were off driving across the mountain. Heavy snow started again, the white lines vanished, the road was slippery and the snow was starting to blow side ways and it took every ounce of Paul's concentration to keep the car on the road as it was difficult to see, we almost missed the turn into the lay by where then house was however we got in just in time, Paul got the car stopped on the top of the hill, any further over and it could slide to the bottom (which happened me before), the snow was deep on the road but just the correct amount to get away with using a front wheel drive car.
This was meant to be because when we stopped the clouds cleared away and the stars were bright and proud and would end up staying clear for the next hour or more, talk about perfect timing. As soon as our eyes saw the house we both instantly knew this was going to be the epic scene of the night and within sec's we were over the fence and standing in the clearance on the marshland facing the house. I have always wanted to shoot this old derelict stone house in moonlit snow and I had tried on many occasions however there was always something missing, either the snow was daytime only, or the night time snow was without moonlight or there was moonlight but the snow wasn't deep enough or cloudy, however now for the first time all the ingredients had come together for a stunning moonlit Winter scene and we wasted no time setting up our gear, without exaggeration we both had our cameras out of the kit bags and mounted on the tripods in less time than it took for me to write these last two sentences. Both of us were buzzing with energy and felt highly charged for serious photography and we began shooting rite away incase the light changed. This was awesome, an ancient stone house with bright moonlit snow and stars in the middle of nowhere, we were both well in the zone and muttering away to one another saying ''wow'' over and over however the comments went unanswered as we both concentrated on getting the best images we could while the light was perfect.
00.10 UT. We couldn't have asked for better, this was exactly what we wanted and more. The sense of isolation and desolation was striking here, the scene on camera really made an impact, the hunt was over, the universe had provided us with what we had asked for. Note the Pleiades cluster to the upper left.
The texture of the snow on the stone walls was truly amazing, I had never seen it like that here before, it looked almost like rime. When I first photographed this building in 2012 the left side was still intact however now it had collapsed with parts of the supporting walls laying on the snow-covered marsh, I wonder if the elements did the demolition work, whatever the case the state of the ruins just added to the scene, this really was a haunted beauty.
We where both standing in snow which went over knee height in places, here's Paul in action, when you are in the zone which we were at this time you don't notice how cold it is or how uncomfortable you are, all that exists is the scene through the viewfinder, this was complete in the zone tunnel vision when you become one with your subject, I absolutely love it when this happens.
00.30 UT, I replaced the 18mm lens with the ultra wide angle 10mm to get vast sky and landscape shots. The moon and planet Jupiter with a sprinkling with stars really made the scene and that lens flare did no harm either.
The three stars of Orion's Belt can be seen to the left of the house. Paul and I had drifted apart lost in our own worlds and for what seemed like hours we probably forgot that each other existed as we become so focused on what we were doing. On occasion I would briefly snap out from my trance when I heard the crunching of snow or observed the light from a head torch against the stone work.
You can really feel the isolation here, almost looks like daylight, this is the magic of moonlight on snow which is an absolute joy to experience, it's like a living dream.
Standing inside what was once the south side of the house facing the west wall with deep snow under foot and drifting snow around the corner, talk about a room with a view.
I then ventured into the heart of the house, this was clearly a living room with fireplace, there where walls all around me however the roof had long since vanished. This stone arch way made for a perfect chance of natural framing surrounding a superb Winter landscape of moonlit snow drifts and stars, this was likely once a door into a adjacent room. More images on page two.
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