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Sperrin View Glamping Night Sky Photography - January 2020

January 6th 2020 was our first night shoot of the new year, after such a cloudy Christmas period we were all eager to meet up and enjoy a nature fix under the stars. That night was forecast to be exceptionally clear, in fact, with the exception of two clear evenings over the entire Christmas period this would be a rare chance of having a clear sky for an entire night. A plan was formed, we decided to meet up for a shoot at Beaghmore Stone Circles, I wanted to test out my new Canon 5D Mark IV and perhaps get my first time lapse of 2020, there was no better motivation as planet Venus was a stunning sight in the SW and with increasing solar elongation it will be putting on its best evening sky apparition in years. I was joined by John Fagan then Paul Martin, the moon was waning gibbous only two days after full. I did a time lapse of Venus setting over the ancient Megalithic stones with the 5D Mark IV and 24mm lens. The stone circles are maintained by the Mid-Ulster Council and permission is now required to do photography there, luckily enough I have permission to take images from this site so we were all good. It was a bitter cold night, after such an exceptional mild spell of late the cold was shocking and we were struggling to adapt but the quality of the night sky kept us out.

We changed locations and decided to check out a new site a few hundred meters down the road from Beaghmore called Sperrin View Glamping. This was a new attraction within the heart of the Sperrins for outdoor lovers who also appreciate creature comforts. At the location are four glamping pods including a larger communal area, this would officially open to the public for booking within the next two weeks so we were eager to get images. I had already been in communication with the owners earlier in the year and permission was granted to take images which was very nice to get. We all split up and went our own ways to size up the pods for astrophotography scenes. We liked what we saw, the pods made for an extremely unique kind of subject matter and were very photogenic. Sperrin View Glamping will flourish when it opens as the location is within walking distance of Beaghmore Stone Circles but also a short drive away from Davagh Forest where the new Dark Sky Observatory will open this Spring, so all these locations will be linked and have an associated connection with the night sky, nature, and health and well being. With these big events happening we decided it would be great to document the stars over the pods. We all captured several images however the moon was moving into the region of sky we needed to be void of it for the best angle of the pods so we decided we would come back another time, we all loved the location and I for one couldn't wait to return on a better night.

January 14th would be my next visit, with good clear skies forecast and a harsh frost with enough of a breeze to keep dew off our lenses we decided to hit it hard. Nigel McFarland and I specifically aimed for Sperrin View Glamping, we met up in Draperstown then took the back road through Davagh Forest, it was already 0 degrees C and the roads were starting to sparkle. When we saw the pods in the distance they were all lit up, someone was inside still working on them, we hadn't anticipated this so we pulled in to see what was happening. Nigel and I were then greeted by the owner Mickey who was very warm and welcoming. He explained he had someone doing work on two of the pods but after a while the lights would be turned off so we could do as much photography as we liked then. As if that wasn't good enough Mickey gave us a tour inside the pods and the communal hub, we were impressed, the interior was fully decorated and with all the essentials anyone could need.

After the tour we had time to kill until darkness for proper night shooting so we decided to shoot the pods with the lights on for comparison. This is the communal hub, the glamping pods are in the background, it was fortunate that we decided to document the sky here at this time of year because the very finest of the Winter stars and constellations were on view and perfectly placed above the site in the exact area of sky we wanted them. We had a good four hours of dark skies before the waning gibbous moon would rise later, when that happened we would use its light for showing our subjects. Above is Orion, Taurus, Gemini and Canis Minor.

Main entrance to the communal hub with one internally lit pod in background. The owners have done a fantastic job of decorating, I loved the theme and choice of ornaments and facilities.

Face-on view, this what you would see when approaching the hub in the dark with internal lights on. When these lights are off a green security light remains on inside which is very atmospheric, you will see this in the images to come. I love the old style bicycle in the porch area and the use of hanging lanterns and stag heads.

We ventured over to the middle of the four glamping pods, the owner left the door open for us and showed us how to adjust the lights, a dimmer switch allowed us to darken the internal light to a level bright enough to show some warm light for our exposures yet not bright enough to hamper our night vision. Such a cool scene with the pod and wood burner with Winter Milky Way. Around the apex of the pod are the constellations of Lacerta, Cepheus, Draco and Ursa Minor, Kochab is the star to the upper right not far from the north celestial pole. We decided we would shoot a star trail here later.

We loved the bamboo outdoor chairs and table at the entrance, we increased the dimmer switch to cast more light onto the furniture to act as a light painting source for photography.

A cool photo opportunity, chairs and wood burner in the great outback of the Sperrins. The burner had been lit earlier however it was still giving off a little heat from embers inside, you can see the smoke reflecting the light in these exposures. By good fortune our angles had worked out great with Orion and Canis Minor dominating the night sky over the scene, the bright star to the left is Procyon.

It would have been a sin not to do this, we just had to get a selfie with us in the chairs with the wood burner, you would think we were camping in the outback of Canada here. This moment was a great memory and will set the stage for a fabulous year of photography and adventures for 2020, this image made the night, we were having such a good time here and enjoying the buzz of shooting this exciting new location under the stars.

If you know your stars you can't have missed the excitement within the astronomical community regarding the bright star Betelgeuse in Orion, visible here at image centre to the upper left of the three belt stars. This orange coloured star is a super red giant near the end of its life, it normally is classified as the 6th brightest star in the sky however in recent weeks it has dimmed in magnitude and is now rated as the 21st brightest. The star is hovering around mag +1.5 or so, if you are familiar with Orion you can't help but feel amazed at this sudden dimming, when you have been watching a bright star all your life and suddenly it fades for no reason it tends to shock you, it really is a fascinating thing to witness. This has lead some to speculate that Betelgeuse will explode as a supernova, sometimes dramatic fading can be an indication of this process, however this isn't fact and nobody can say for sure, it's true the star will go supernova at some stage, it could be a year from now or in 100,000 years which is a short time span on the galactic clock.

Betelgeuse is an irregular variable star, it has long duration cycles and has dimmed before, however the current minima is the faintest since modern records began so perhaps the star is undergoing another cycle of variability, it may even be blowing off a shell of dust causing the star to dim, whatever the cause we will find out in due course. In truth nobody knows for sure what will happen so make sure to cast your eye to Betelgeuse each clear night to see if it's behaving itself, it was nice to do this check tonight from Sperrin View Glamping.

The work on the other pods was completed for the night and everyone headed home. Mickey let us stay on to do our shoot which was very generous of him. The place was plunged into darkness except for the internal glow which we deliberately wanted. It was time for a star trail, Nigel and I got set up, selected our angles and began shooting. I was doing 25 second exposures at ISO1600 with the 10mm F/2.8 lens, camera on continuous shooting using the 600D crop sensor. For those who don't shoot star trails or time lapse its worth mentioning that it takes a lot of time to get one result. Usually for a star trail a minimum of one hour is needed for a decent trail, the longer you shoot the longer the stars will trail due to the Earth's rotation throughout the night. We stood near our cameras for a while however the cold was starting to get to us, we were already entering our third hour on location and exposed under the frosty night. So as time passed we went inside the glamping pod for shelter. We were able to stay warm and dry and shake off our chill as our bodies warmed to the ambient temperature. It felt like luxury, I have never had a night shoot in my life where I could take shelter and stay warm while being outside in the elements, this was when I realized just what a great idea these pods are, if you are an amateur astronomer or night sky photographer then this would be a great place to stay for a night. It clouded over half way through our star trail shoot then cleared again so I stacked the images without cloud and got this result which I was very happy with.

Later in the night the moon rose unseen above the horizon which brightened the frosty sky. I was now shooting with two cameras, one time lapsing the communal hub at 10mm and the other Canon 600D with 18mm kit lens for these exposures of the pods. Facing SE looking at the second pod, the faint green glow inside came up very well in these 25-30 second exposures with Messier 42 and Rigel aloft.

Glamping pod and SE Winter sky, the fainter stars below Orion belong to Lepus with the more vacant right side taking in Hydra and Monoceros, many a comet has been seen wandering through these lesser known star fields over the years. You can just about make out the railings of the upper bunk bed inside the window.

Imagine laying on that cosey bunk bed in the darkness looking out of this window at the stars. The view inside faces W to NW and part of the N so it would certainly be possible to watch the Aurora and Noctilucent Clouds from this vantage point. During dark Spring evenings after twilight keen eyed sky watchers may also spy the elusive Zodiacal Light Pyramid.

Filling the camera frame with the window. The cold was once again affecting us so we went inside the pod to warm up. Inside was warm and dry and fitted with beds, fridge, kettle, cutlery, glasses, bathroom and more. Below the window on the inside are connections for a television aerial, charging ports and USB ports fitted within the wall which was a nice touch, each pod also comes with wifi. We loved the wooden interior, there was a genuine sense of calm and tranquility. We turned off the light and stayed quiet for a while, I don't think I have heard such silence in a long time, on a calm night like this it was utterly peaceful, I would have fallen asleep had I lay down. We recharged our physical batteries with a few snacks then headed out under the stars for more photography.

The larger communal hub facing W-SW with the great square of Pegasus over the roof and Cygnus to the right. You can see that the landscaping isn't finished yet but I can imagine that once this has all turned to grass it will look wonderful and will blend into the surrounding countryside. I hope to get drone images once the site is completed, it should look quite exceptional from the air.

It was time to get more images of the communal pod, the glow from the rising moon added to the atmosphere, we had asked for the green light to remain on to add to the images and once again Orion was perfectly placed. This hub is much larger inside than you would think from the outside view, in fact, very spacious, it has a reading corner, kitchen, sofa, and even a bar in the corner and porch for relaxing outside.

Communal hub looking SE, those LED lights on the ground will eventually be lit up which will look nice on a Summer's night.

Communal hub looking S to SW. The ecliptic runs down the sky here aligned with the angle of the roof, this is the plane of the solar system projected onto the sky and marks the path of the sun, moon and planets among the stars, it's also the location of the Zodiacal Light during Spring evenings.

A cold wind began to pick up from the NW and clouds were approaching so I went into the porch for shelter, Nigel was somewhere in the darkness shooting the pods.

I instantly loved this porch with wedge-shaped roof, I had to take a few exposures to document it at night. Check out the brick wall and fireplace with ornaments hanging. A section of Ursa Major can be seen in the sky with optical double stars Alcor and Mizar.

I was grateful for this shelter, the green glow is exaggerated by the exposure, it's much darker and less green than this in realty, however I love the effect. Can you imagine standing beside this fire on a clear night watching a meteor shower. Nigel arrived and just in time, the sky darkened and it began to snow, we were delighted, large snow flakes fell from the sky, we shone our head torches into the blowing flakes, we are big snow fans and to experience our first snow of 2020 from this location made it extra special.

Looking W as the snow shower began to clear. The cloud finally vanished and we were once again treated to a wonderful starry sky, it was time for more photography.

The moon was now lighting up the foreground and the blowing cirrus clouds, looking along the paths towards the two southern pods, the bright star is Sirius the Dog Star in Canis Major, brightest star in the night sky.

Sweeping moonlit cirrus clouds with Ursa Major and Draco, open cluster Messier 42 can be seen to the upper right.

Moonlit glamping pods with Sirius and Orion, even though the moonlight was getting brighter the sky didn't loose much definition which was a testament to the quality of the sky this night. Honestly the best night sky I have seen for many months, the earlier wind and clean Polar Maritime Air Mass really helped cleanse the sky and enhance transparency.

A great region of sky with Sirius, Orion, Taurus with Hyades cluster sporting Aldebaran and of course the famous Pleiades Cluster (Messier 45) also known as the Seven Sisters. I stood here for a long time taking in the stars and admiring Betelgeuse.

We shot one last star trail of the night over the communal hub in moonlight. We sheltered in the pod once again and warmed up as the cameras clicked away before more cloud came in which cut the trail short, however I had enough frames for this trail, I dropped the ISO to 800 to compensate for the moonlight, the three stars of Orion's Belt are quite distinctive. This ended our great night's shoot at Sperrin View Glamping, Nigel and I drove back through the forest for home, the roads were sparkling white with frost with black ice and the van was reading -2C, I had a feeling it wouldn't be long until we were back again.

Friday January 17th saw our return to the Sperrins, the forecast was going for a great clear night with temperatures as low as -4C and with dark skies and a late rising moon it looked like we would have perfect skies for another go at the glamping pods. We met up as soon as it got dark but we stopped off in Davagh Forest first to shoot still exposures of Orion between the trees, I was testing the crop sensor vs full frame view and even shot more time lapse of Orion and M31. Long story short, John and I went for a walk inside the dark forest and it began to snow again out of nowhere so we stayed out in it, as the shower cleared we could see snow falling in puffy streaks against a background of Winter stars, it really was a beautiful scene. The clock was ticking and after a few test images we moved on to the glamping pods, we had been in communication with Mickey earlier and so we had full permission once more.

John and I spent hours here and yet again we got another superb quality sky. Even though I took many images I ended up spending most of the time starring at the sky with the naked eye. When fully dark adapted we could see the Zodiacal Band extending out from the Milky Way into the W and open cluster M44 in Cancer looked like the coma from some tailless comet rising in the E, it seemed to jump out from the sky. I used one camera this time with 10mm lens and shot stills and star trails/time lapse. We mixed our outside exposure with periods of shelter in the warm pod and had a great time. We chatted in great detail about our past storm chases and best experiences and our intentions and goals for 2020, we both felt inspired and ready for action. This is a wide image showing two pods complimented by Orion, Sirius and Procyon, even the low elevation open cluster M41 below Sirius was conspicuous with the naked eye. I had intended on shooting a star trail from inside the pod looking out through the window however the difference in temperature caused my lens and sensor to fog over and would take a long time to acclimatize, maybe I will get another chance to try this idea in the future.

After several late night shoots and cold exposure this week combined with more late nights editing I was beginning to feel the exposure outside. We got hit by several more snow showers which made shooting problematic as or lenses got hammered but we remained dedicated to the very end. Late in the night it turned extremely cold, our van and car windows were covered with ice, the camera bodies encased in white frost and I had frozen water drops on my lens. I liked the end result with this star trail with the pod's apex window, these windows are actually massive when you are inside the pod looking out, you can see a large extent of sky while staying cosy.

Last star trail of the night over the communal hub, this time without moonlight and under very dark skies. By 01.30 we ended our shoot, cleared the ice off the windscreens, and began the drive home. The road was glittering white once again and at times I felt the van slide on the back roads but I took it easy and was enjoying myself, when I passed through the forest a beautiful female Deer walked across the trail in front of me and vanished into the trees, it was the fitting end to yet another memorable night in the Sperrins.

A collection of short time lapse sequences from the two nights showing the communal hub and pods. The guys and I really enjoyed our time spent on the site and were not only impressed by the pods, the interior, and the sky, but also by the generosity of the owners who were nothing but kind and supportive the entire time, so if you fancy a glamping experience with a taste for the stars then check them out, you won't regret it!, thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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