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5am Lunar Fog Bow Encounter On Glenshane Pass - Oct 9th 2014

For what felt like the one hundredth time I got out of my bed, pulled back the curtains then opened the window and let the cold night air into the room as I scanned the sky to the E and SE in search of lightning. For the last two days and nights in a row the ocean around UK and Ireland had been experiencing epic thunderstorms with lightning flashing over the sea almost continuously during that entire period due to active waves and troughs in a sheared environment firing over warm seas with freezing air aloft and all spawned by a deep Atlantic low pressure system. All of these storms had lit up the night sky over S, SW and SE coastal regions which were simply too distant for me to chase and as a result I was on edge and living in hope of getting lightning over the oceans further north. All day and evening storms had been flashing away over the Irish Sea between Ireland and Wales and these where slowly moving N during the night. I was in full obsessive storm photography mode and couldn't settle until I saw something so I spent the night on my bed looking at the radar and sferics charts and hitting refresh over and over again until my arms hurt. As the charts plotted each new lightning strike in the form of a red dot I could see that a red carpet of lightning fury was creeping closer to the SE shores of N. Ireland and if it kept doing like this then I was considering driving to Co. Down or perhaps the E shores of Antrim on my own late in the night hoping for an incredible light show.

Suddenly the big storm system which I had been monitoring all night had stopped producing sparks however a new cell had erupted over the SW of Scotland and I assumed that lightning from it would be visible to my E, so once again I stuck my head out the window and looked to the E, then on que - flash - that was nice, then a few min's later FLASH! - a major flash of lightning lit up the sky and this one was very bright, actually considerably brighter than what I had expected and to think that it came from a storm near Scotland made it even more impressive so this must have been a substantial updraught. I reckoned if I had a good view of the E horizon I may be able to pick up those flashes on camera and as tired as I felt and as enticing as the thought of staying in a warm bed was I decided that I had to give it a go so at 03.00 I left home and drove up Glenshane Pass onto very high ground passing through banks of mist and fog on the hunt for lightning.

Lough Neagh Moonlit Fog

It was like a different world up here at this crazy hour of the morning and very quiet which gave the impression that I had the entire mountain to myself. It was bitterly cold outside with a gentle breeze with the bright waning full moon high in the sky lighting the clouds and haze up in such a cold light it was as if the country were covered in a layer of snow. The view to the E was magnificent and from this elevation I was literally looking down on the Antrim basin which was all covered in a sea of brilliant white moonlit fog. The view alone was worth the late night drive and all I could see was a distant tower of red lights in the direction of Antrim, the entire countryside and Lough Neagh itself was covered in fog so I got the camera out and attached the Canon 24-70mm and began taking exposures just as a flash of lightning lit up the sky from behind those bands of cloud, that Scottish storm was lurking behind the cloud like a stealth submarine operating inside that foggy ocean. Another flash of lightning strobbed in spectacular fashion which got me really focused so I began taking image after image after image in the hope of catching a tower or anvil lit up from within, however after a long time I realised that the lightning was just too distant to detect on camera so I simply relaxed and watched the sky for a while enjoying the sight of the stars while an upper tangent arc formed above the moon.

Lunar Fog Bow

At 04.00 the temp dropped further and seemed to penetrate through every layer of my clothes so I jumped on the spot to keep warm then the fog began to thicken all around me creating a very foreboding atmosphere then the breeze stopped and everything went still. Leaves fell from the trees and their bizare crashing sound within the fog altered acoustics on such a silent night was such that it gave me the impression of someone standing in the shadows watching me from under the shadows of the trees which was starting to freak me out, however I was distracted by the growing beauty of the landscape and my mind switched back into full photography mode. Blankets of glowing white fog and strips of moonlit low level clouds passed over the crest of the mountain and crossed over my head then wandered down the mountain to lower ground where it would pool over the Lough. This was getting really cool looking and I was certain a dramatic photo opportunity was going to present itself so I sought out some interesting foreground.

I walked into a massive sloping field beside an old derelict stone house and pondered shooting fog around that however it was back-lit by the moon and didn't work so I turned around with the moon at my back and suddenly I saw something strange in the other end of the field which looked like a brilliant white heavenly glow on the grass which was significantly brighter than anything else in the area, I thought my eyes were deceiving me so I kept watch and sure enough it was something real which was manifesting before my very eyes and I knew instantly what it was. I took an exposure with the camera and the image confirmed what I was hoping - this was a lunar fog bow - the conditions were perfect with a bright moon behind my back while I faced the opposition point towards a bank of fog sporting the correct size of water droplets that are required for a bow and it seemed to be getting brighter by the minute - my heart raced!

Lunar Fog Bow

I found a nice composition and began shooting with the 10mm wide angle lens while watching the phenomena at the same time, I couldn't believe my luck for I had observed perhaps 3 or 4 lunar fog bows in my enitre life however I have never caught one on camera and the last time I did have a camera was during the severe Winter of 2009 in December when the best lunar fog bow I have ever seen appeared over a field covered in deep snow in the middle of the night and it was a sight to behold, however my bridge camera could only do 15 sec exposures with a slow lens and a tiny FOV so I couldn't capture it, however this time I had the gear and I was ready. Capturing it on camera was quite challenging because of the large dynamic range of both the fog, clouds and sky because with too long an exposure or too high an ISO it would be burn out in a white mess with no shape or colour, however if underexposed then the scene looked wrong and noisy with little in the way of stars and foreground so a lot of bracketing had to be done, also the moon's brightness would change rapidly due to passing fog and cloud causing the scene to alter which demanded more on the spot adjustments, I was busy for quite some time in search of the best settings in a mad panic to record this rare phenomena before the fog subdued the moonlight - but it didn't - the lunar fog bow remained visible constantly for long periods of time and yet again I couldn't believe my luck, this should have been a fleeting apparition but instead I was getting to sustained show.

Lunar Fog Bow

It was rapidly approaching 05.00 UT and here I was in the middle of a field on a mountain in the middle of nowhere watching this beautiful ghostly bow which was putting on a show. It was now much brighter than before and I could see its curving phantom glow at the bottom of the field with a fringe of orange crowning the upper portion. It made for quite a sight with the cows swinging their tails in the field behind the bow with the lush grass and marshland all lit into surreal alien colours by the blazing moon and above all this was a wonderful atmospheric sky with the stars of Ursa Major and Leo with brilliant planet Jupiter like a beacon sporting its own compact halo.

Lunar Fog Bow

I was in heaven rite now, I had come out for lightning with low expectations and out of nowhere I get this unexpected gift from mother nature. It was just me and the bow all alone on the mountain in a dream-like world when the rest of the country was asleep experiencing one of nature's beautiful phenomena and if it wasn't for those distant storms producing red dots on the lap top screen at the rite time then I wouldn't have been here and the bow would have appeared with no human eyes to admire and photograph it - however I was here, I was meant to be here - it felt personal - that intimate connection with nature was reestablished and I was glowing on the inside, I love moments like this. I just had to get an image of the fog bow with myself for the memory so I set the camera on continuous shoot with the cable release then ran into the chest-high grass which was soaking with dew then stood in a variety of poses and angles for each image in the hope that one of them would turn out OK, I rather liked this one because it captures the moment perfectly along with my happy emotional state, I had my arms out in exclamation as if to say ''look at this!''

Lunar Fog Bow

I need to mention that the fog bow was very bright with the naked eye and considerably more intense and vibrant than how it appears on the images. This bow had been perched in that field for almost one hour and it hadn't vanished once, seriously how often does that happen?, I even took several star trail fog bow images to experiment with then I decided to take another selection of images with myself in the frame to provide a more intimate feeling while providing a sense of depth and scale, please keep in mind that this is a massive FOV using the 10mm lens which tends to make subjects look smaller and further away than they really are, the bow was bigger and closer in reality and seemed so close I felt I could have ran over and touched it, both bases were clearly visible on the grass in front of me.

I was deliberately posed looking at Jupiter here because Jupiter was the planet I observed through my first two telescopes and even the sight of the naked eye view is enough to unfurl all those exciting past emotions from the years spent out in the back garden at my old home training myself in the art of astronomical observation via the nightly ritual of sketching and mapping the Jovian features, the intricate belts and zones and festoons and the frosty breath of excitement when the great red spot was in transit across the meridian along with the dance of the planet's four brightest moons Ganymede, Callisto, Io and Europa which changed position by the hour accompanied by the sound of a distant fox against the background of the ticking of the clock drive in my telescope as I tracked the planet for hours. Those sessions taught me a lot about observing and they are fond memories which I will always cherish, for this reason I always greet Jupiter with the highest of respect and yet again here it was many years later smiling down on me like an old friend with this wonderful lunar fog bow on show. I ran back through the grass soaking my trousers then as I watched the fog bow slowly vanished and was gone for good so I packed away my gear and drove back down the mountain with a smile on my face. I was back home for 05.15 and as my head rested on the pillow all I could think about was that amazing white bow and the stars and how much I love doing this kind of photography, then I fell into a well deserved sleep. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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