It has been a very busy Spring and Summer in 2010 however it was also been an emotional roll coaster ride. Conor McDonald and I had experienced our most busy and intense photographic period this year. Our devotion was relentless and our subject matter covered a great range of transient day and night sky subjects. By night we had been hunting for auroras, Noctilucent Clouds, fireballs, lightning, and by day it was storm chasing, sunsets, gorse fires, and even random days spent taking images in forests, at riversides, country roads, old derelict buildings and graveyards. After a spectacular 2009 Noctilucent Cloud season we were fully prepared for another great season and had formed ambitious plans to catch these glowing clouds from all sorts of vantage points ranging from Slieve Gallion, airports, Lough Neagh, old churches, and even the North coast in the hope of catching that ultimate display reflecting on the Ocean itself. These plans didn't come to light because the 2009 NLC season turned out to be the poorest season we had witnessed to date due to increasing solar activity and a number of other more complicated factors affecting the temperature of the Mesosphere so all in all it a was disappointing show. We spent every clear night from May to August watching for these mysterious clouds, however time and time again they were a sorry sight due to their low elevation, subdued magnitudes, and rather unexceptional structure.
We did get treated to several nice displays, some of these did indeed reach the zenith before dawn however they still lacked the wow factor. It was far from a complete loss though because we had such incredible adventures driving through the countryside at all hours of the night trying to catch them on camera. The experience was very productive with positive results because we managed to find a larger number of observing locations which we didn't know about before, some of these were planned during daylight hours, others were spontaneous and offered rewards in the form of wonderful night sky scenes and nature while experiencing all kinds of weather phenomena. The night spent at Lough Fea comes to mind, no NLCs appeared however the sight of the golden coloured crescent Moon and Venus with glitter paths on the surface of the calm Lough before dawn really jumps to mind as a special memory. However by far my most cherished night of them all was the all-night photo shoot at Toome Bridge near the River Bann on June 16th which was an experience I shall always cherish.
It was one of those classic mild Summer evenings and the forecast was not promising as clear spells were expected along with periods of cloud cover. There had been weak NLC displays on the previous two nights so the chances were high that a good display was likely anytime so we both felt this night could produce something of value. I have always noticed over the years that NLC displays always appear in 'trains' or 'windows' which can last several nights in a row. By this I mean that once an NLC display appears after several no-show nights you can bet there will be 2-3, or possibly even 3-4 nights in a row of formations and with each consecutive night the displays will gradually get more impressive. The finest display of them all typically reveals itself on the 3rd or 4th night so this was the situation which faced us on June 16th. Conor McDonald and I swapped phone calls during the day and discussed at length where we should go that night, we vetoed or local spots since we were sick using them and fancied something different, for some reason we didn't want to risk a trip to the north coast as we were concerned about fog formation which could ruin the night, and indeed fog was forecast so at the risk of wasting fuel we put that idea to one side for another time. Our minds were drawing a blank so we hung up and decided we would work something out later.
During the evening the phone rings again and it was Conor, he had a plan, he had spent a considerable period of time using Google maps and found a great location - the new Toome Bridge at the River Bann outside Toome, he checked the compass points and everything seemed great, we should be able to photograph the bridge and any NLCs which appear, I liked the idea alot so we made it happen. During evening twilight we got the camera gear sorted then hit the road. It was a week night so traffic was light and a good feeling intensified with every mile we advanced. The twilight sky looked gorgeous with Venus and the brighter stars on show so all was good. There was a possibility there would be no NLCs this night but we took the gamble anyway, there was certainly no indication of them in the sky at this time however we both felt confident we would be in luck.
We arrived outside a rather quiet Toome and drove along a lane which flanked the side of the River Bann then parked beside the river. There was a row of houses behind us at close range so we knew our movements could be watched by the unseen eyes behind the curtains, however perhaps they were sleeping as it was after midnight and there was no sign of life from the shadowed abodes. It was a completely still and silent night, every noise seemed to echo in the twilight darkness so at the risk of drawing unwanted attention to our presence we decided to go about out plan as quietly as possible which meant slowly and carefully lifting the tripods from the car and extending them with as little metallic noise as possible, we also closed the car doors with a click rather than a bang.
Happy that we didn't wake anyone we then walked down a few stones steps cut into the grass bank and walked onto a wooden jetty which floated on the river, presumably this was used by fishermen and boat owners. The wooden floor gently moved with each footstep so we treaded carefully, one wrong movement or slip and we would be in the deep and unforgiving river. We quietly attached the cameras to the tripods and then watched and waited as we adapted to our new environment. Once we became one with the night we began to take images, the above is the view which greeted us showing Toome Bridge, as you can see the bridge is illuminated by beautiful purple lights which made a for stunning sight as they reflected on the still river. This scene was worth the trip alone even if no NLCs appeared. This image is 18mm F/3.5 ISO100 at 31 sec's. The twilight sky can be seen above along with several of the brighter stars. It felt very special standing on this floating jetty which was just big enough for us both and no more.
We stayed quiet and busied ourselves taking more exposures when we suddenly heard Human noises from up on the bridge itself. The hushed conspiratorial whispering seemed to come from two or three figures which we could just about make out, we slowly lowered into the shadows incase we were seen, it was unlikely they would pick us out anyway as they stood among those brilliant lights looking down into the dark river and bank, we were looking from darkness to light so we had the advantage. We switched off our cameras incase the LCD screens betrayed our position then we watched what our new visitors were up to. We heard suppressed giggling and a flicking noise followed by a flickering flame which we could barely make out, then min's later a large orange ball ascended from the bridge heading skyward, it was a Chinese lantern!, I switched the camera back on again and got this image showing the trail of the lantern complete with reflection on the water.
This was the same settings as the other image only with a 26 sec shutter. If you have never seen a Chinese lantern at close range before then you can't appreciate how impressive they look, it's no small wonder why they generate so many UFO reports. The large orange lantern drifted silently into the sky flickering in brilliance until it was soon far overhead, within a min it looked like an orange ball set sail among the stars of the Summer Triangle. It was soon followed by a second lantern which was just as impressive as the first, it felt really peaceful watching these eerie glowing lanterns climbing to a phenomenal height in the sky while our companions on the bridge had no idea that we had been watching from the pools of darkness below. Our new companions soon vanished back into the night and we were back to silence once again. The River was so quiet with the only disturbance being the occasional Trout or Salmon breaking the surface with an expanding ripple to feed on a fly.
We walked back up the river bank to solid ground and got a clear view to the N, there were NLCs now visible in Auriga!, it was amazing how quickly they formed as 20 min's earlier there had been nothing. The display had 'the look' which had the possibility of turning into a good one. We decided to change location and shoot this rapidly growing display, we drove around for a while then found a vast field where we could set up the gear, there was nowhere close to hand to park the car so we drove on down the road and pulled into a parking area in a housing estate which was some distance from the field we wanted. We exited the car quietly again then began jogging along a country road until we found our new spout, we climbed over the gate and entered this huge field which was quite a few acres in size, it was pitch black at ground level and we couldn't see a thing, our dark adaption didn't help much either so we stood still and listened for a while incase there where Cows, however we were surrounded by silence so we moved on into the unknown. The NLC display now looked fantastic at type 4 brightness and covering a large portion of the NW to NE sky over 120 degrees long and it seemed to be getting better by the min.
Conor and I split up to do our own thing, Conor went further in towards the ruins of an old building which he wanted to get in the frame, I decided to move on into the centre of the field to get a good horizon for the display. The long grass was making my jeans wet with dew and hundreds of small seeds from the grass stuck to me, combine this with the mild temps and biting midgets and it was quite uncomfortable. I had to take my jacket off to cool down, I kept walking however what I didn't know was that the field sloped down in the middle where a gully/ditch they hidden from view in the darkness, I saw what I took to be tall grass and decided to walk through it to get to the other side, then I fell into the unseen gully landing into a forest of nettles which wasn't a pleasant experience at all. I was stung all over my arms and even in my legs through the jeans so I ended up scratching and cursing for 10 min's after this. The NLC display got my attention once again so I began taking exposures, I used Vega high overhead to get focused using live view and was ready to rock and roll. The above image is at 18mm F/5.6 ISO400 at 01.33 BST. Capella is the bright star at centre and Perseus is to the upper R.
The NLCs were absolutely beautiful at this stage sporting the classic electric blue colour along with tones of white, yellow, and even subtle green with the naked eye. Below these was a bed of orange colour like sand on a beach above the horizon. This display was active enough to show real time motion with the naked eye. This one is at 32mm for 7 sec's, the patches of mid level cloud added to the scene, those tropospheric clouds are dark however the NLCs are still illuminated by the Sun because they are located considerably higher in the Mesosphere some 82km above ground, that's literally on the edge of space. I wondered at the time if the astronauts onboard the ISS were taking images of this, I'm sure the view through their spacecraft window must have been stunning.
Now at 43mm for 9 sec's, NLC photography is straight forward, however that doesn't mean it's easy, one must get the correct shutter speed and ISO combination to exposure the scene adequately without causing too much motion blur. Underexposure can show the colours very well however longer shutter or higher ISO will catch more of the delicate structure but at the risk of loosing colour, a balance must be found to record the scene accurately. You can see just how dark this field was we where standing in, even the exposure, glowing clouds, and bright Summer twilight don't bring up the foreground at all.
53mm pointing N towards Capella in Auriga with stunning type 2 NLC bands sporting vivid electric blue colour which seemed to cause the sky to glow, this blue colour was even more stunning visually, those bands and billows could be seen drifting from R to L below Capella in real time like dense smoke with an electric charge. While all this was going on I was kneeling down in the long grass checking focus on the LCD screen and trying out various exposures, it was silent all around me and Conor was far away at the bottom of the field near the ruins. I kept hearing noises in the field which sounded like a person or animal moving through the long grass in the darkness, whatever it was sounded like it was stalking, I could just make out the outline of tall grass rustling which betrayed the movement of my new guest. It seemed to be getting closer to me and I was getting unnerved, was it a person who had seen the glow from the cameras coming out to check on us?, or was it a Bull which we had missed on the way in?, I gave a yell to Conor and he yelled back from the distance so it wasn't him, I shouted back that we were not alone in this field, what ever it was it moved on through and disappeared, I had that awful feeling of being watched, it was probably a Fox or some other denizen of the night. It reminded me of the scene from 'The Lost World' when the Velociraptors where stalking humans through the field with swift moving trails making a bee line for their pray - ''don't go into the long grass!''.
It was now 02.07 BST in the morning and for the third time this night we hunted down another location in the hope of greater photogenic rewards. We made our way back through the dark field, over the gate, along the country road then back in the car and re-positioned on the other side of the road where we got treated to a wonderful sight. It was pre-dawn and the NLCs were at their very finest covering a large sector of sky with silvery-blue waves and bands causing the sky to glow with an outstanding brilliance. We climbed another gate and entered yet another huge field with very tall grass and set up our cameras for our final shots of the night. Here's the purple Toome Bridge with NLCs above, looking N to NW, the field below was lit by street lights behind us which generated this orange-red glow, the warm colours contrasted beautifully with the cold colours of the bridge and sky. This was 25mm ISO400 at 8 sec's, I was using the remote shutter for all of these to avoid vibration. It was not easy trying to get the camera level on such tall grass while at the same time trying to keep midgets away from the front of the lens.
Now at 35mm for 8 sec's. I walked deeper into the grass, it seemed so utterly surreal standing out in this gorgeous field on a mild Summer night watching these amazing NLCs putting on a fine display over this famous bridge, even as I write this now I can vividly re-live the sights, sounds, and scent from this special night. The NLCs where now 30 degrees high (60 full Moon diameters) at type 4 brightness with more subtle and complex features forming such as the net-like structure, herringbone, and whirls with several of the more pronounced bands casting shadows. It's a shame about those power lines and lights however there's nothing I can do about that, this is the way the scene looked at the time so I intend on keeping true to that.
Now 02.21 BST, this is my personal favourite image from the session, 18mm F/5.6 ISO400 for 9 sec's. For me this single image captivates the atmosphere perfectly along with that Earth-sky connection I always try to get in my images. At 18mm this is of course wide angle which in one go presents the unique visual experience we had on this memorable night. You can get an idea of the range in azimuth this display covers along with it's cut-off point above where the NLCs and twilight sky are clearly defined. The NLCs have also brightened further, perhaps to type 4.5 (5 is the top of the scale) because the Sun is rising, as it does so the NLC display also widens and engulfs a larger portion of sky, a significant change in brightness also accompanies this altitude change. A brightness value of 4.5 doesn't mean much for those who are not experienced NLC observers so to put it in context this means that the NLCs are so bright that they cast shadows on the ground, illuminate objects facing them, and are noticed by members of the public, you could read a book from their light to put it another way. This NLC display is a classic example of the phenomena with the silvery-white glow at lower regions topped by the blue colour aloft. Large scale whirls can now be seen. Capella is to the far R and that's Conor standing in the long grass taking his own images with the camera's LCD screen glowing. This experience stands out as one of my top events of 2010. I have another version of this image without the figure if anyone is interested.
We walked on down to the bottom of the field, in the darkness it was difficult to tell where the field ended and the River Bann began so we treaded slowly and carefully, the last thing we wanted was to fall into this deep river. Once on the river's edge we adjusted to the night and soaked up the amazing view of the bridge lights and NLCs reflecting on the calm water. What seemed like thousands of flies danced within those purple lights while a Heron called in the distance, Bats flew overhead, and the heads of Trout broke the surface of the water. This portrait shot is at 18mm 6 sec's at ISO400, we were having serious problems with heavy dew forming so I had to wipe my lens on a regular basis, in fact the above image was already lightly dewed over which I didn't notice at the time, you can just about detect it at image centre where there's a mist-like quality.
This was now 02.46 BST and for the fourth time this night we changed location, still near the bridge except facing a different direction, the car was parked within another large field which was lit by the glare from lights. This is where we took our last NLC images of the night from, I liked the trees in this one with the rolls of dark cloud blowing across with the silver NLCs above with a large scale whirl on show. The stars above those are the 'Paws' of the Great Bear and at the very bottom of the frame was an intense orange-red glow along the horizon where the Sun would soon rise. We watched Jupiter rise then the world showed the first signs of life as Birds began to stir and a few early morning truck drivers passed us on the road so it was time to call it a night. We drove home watching walls of fog blanketing the fields and spreading across the roads, when we arrived back in Maghera it seemed like we had been dreaming, had this entire night actually happen?, it seemed like we had been away for many hours yet it all went in so fast, our perception of time was deluded and this only added to the unreal atmosphere of the night. It was an extremely rewarding session, we had a fantastic adventure, witnessed the best NLCs of the 2010 season, and got good images which was the icing on the cake. I'm delighted that I have put this account together and shared this wonderful night with readers.
This is a short youtube clip I've put together showing a selection of images taken during the 2010 NLC season, the image highlights are the Toome Bridge and River Bann displays, the soundtrack is from 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service', the James Bond movie. Thanks for reading.