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Various Imagery - Nightscapes & Convection 2019

This is a bit of a random report, I will explain why. On most occasions when I go on a photo shoot, whether it be the night sky or storm chasing, I usually end up spending many hours on location and quite often an entire day or night. As a result I tend to come home with quite a few images and these are enough to fill up a new image report for the web site. However sometimes I might come home with only one or two images or the results I get simply aren't enough to cover a story or the event itself might not be photogenic enough to warrant a dedicated report, when this happens I end up leaving images on my computer and with time they are forgotten. When I go back to look at the images again I get taken back to that night and all those great memories stir up the majesty of that experience, after all, if I put so much time and energy into capturing the sky then I would be doing myself (and you my followers) a disservice by not showcasing the results, so this is why I have decided to dedicate this report to these pleasant memories, some are recent, others were several months ago, but all captured during 2019, so let's go on a journey through time together.

April 9th 2019, this was a quick photo shoot suddenly arranged with photographer Paul Martin, the forecast was for a good clear frosty night and with so many cloudy nights over this period we jumped at the chance to get out and shoot nightscapes. This was a week night and Paul had an early start in the morning so we had to make it count and the shoot had to be local, but where?. A week earlier I had been driving along the Cookstown-Omagh road and called into An-Creagan for a coffee, I noticed they had a dramatic mock up of an ancient Bronze Age settlement which looked fantastic, I immediately thought that this would make for great foreground at night so I took a few 10mm stills to check framing options and using the sunset position I worked out that the front of the hut would be aligned to the N or NE in which case it would be perfect for a star trail. I suggested the location to Paul, he liked the sound of it as it was something completely different so a plan was made.

I met Paul before sunset, we grabbed a brew and chatted until dusk merged into astronomical twilight, we drove to the hut and were instantly glad we had made this decision. The settlement looked wonderful so we checked the location and made sure we were on our own then took a few test images and chose our final composition. The area was surprisingly dark however to our astonishment someone had left a light bulb on which hung from the roof on the inside, there was no switch to turn it off so we had no choice but to accept it was there and work with it, I actually kind of liked it which made for a very atmospheric sight, I took the above image during twilight with the first stars of the night.

The lingering twilight glow and light from the waxing crescent moon provided some ambient light to work with, Paul pulled down the flap over the entrance of the hut which helped subdue the interior light somewhat. Now pleased with the scene I shot a star trail, this was at 10mm wide angle using 25 second exposures. The night was dead calm and the stars were beautiful but my goodness it got very cold indeed, we stood and guarded the cameras and watched the sky however the frosty air was nasty, it seemed the freezing dampness was penetrating our clothes and furthermore we just knew our camera lenses were going to mist over in due course, it was going to happen, so we just kept shooting and hoped for the best. This was the result of this star trail during that twilight/moonlit period which I was rather pleased with.

The moon set and full darkness fell over the landscape, I increased my ISO to 1600 and took another test exposure, the constellations of Ursa Minor, Draco and Bootes circumvent Polaris in this region of sky with bright star Arcturus to the right of the hut and Vega rising above the trees on the left, I began a second star trail.

I shot for a longer time period and got this dark sky trail, once again I was delighted with the result, to the best of my knowledge the images Paul and I took are likely the only night images of this location which exist to date which just goes to show that hidden gems can be found in your home area if you take the time out to hunt them down during daylight hours, foreground really is everything and this was extremely unusual indeed. By 02.00 UT we were both freezing, our bodies and camera lenses had had enough so we called it a night, we definitely will return again another time.

March 8th 2019, another night shoot with Paul Martin, the forecast from the Met Office was for a long night of clear skies on a perfect moonless night, our intentions were to rapidly head NW and make a return trip to Co. Donegal, perhaps to Fanad Head lighthouse. I met Paul in Co. Tyrone and together we had just taken the back roads outside Omagh with excited chat about the night's prospects, the stars were shining and our spirits were high, that was until we got a sudden phone call from Nigel McFarland tipping us off to a change in the weather forecast, Nigel explained that SAT24 was showing a massive area of high level cloud moving into the W ahead of a warm front, in other words the Met Office was entirely wrong, Donegal would be under a blanket of cloud by the time we got there. So we checked the satellite images ourselves and decided to stay near Omagh, we reckoned we had 3 hours of clear skies here until the cloud reached us inland so we decided to make the most of it. We were slightly thrown off by the sudden change of plan and struggled to find interesting foreground to shoot, we tried two locations which never worked out which used up a valuable hour then Paul recalled a nice church in the area which could be worth checking out which he had shot a star trail over years ago, we went for that.

This turned out to be a great decision, the church was fantastic and despite being in proximity to a large town with light pollution the sky was actually very dark around the structure. As if this wasn't good enough the street lights around the church and car park were switched off, most cool churches one finds for nightscapes turn out to be ruined by exterior lighting and LP however this one was surrounded in darkness, a rare occasion indeed to capture a church with stars. The church itself looked great as an atmospheric dark form against the stars and a small internal security light had caused the windows to glow green from the inside which made the scene all the more dramatic for us. I immediately fell in love with the place and began taking images with the intention of shooting a star trail. Such a tidy scene it was, Vega within Lyra to the left and Corona Borealis the Northern Crown to the upper left of the tall tree.

Interestingly you can see the variable star RCrB within the crown at about mag +6.0. This star maintains this magnitude for long periods of time (many years) then suddenly an eruption takes place, the star becomes engulfed within a cloud of dense carbon which acts like suit which in turn shuts out the star's light, when this happens observers on Earth will see the star suddenly fade from view at unexpected intervals, some have likened it to a reverse nova. As I type this in September 2019 RCrB has been within a deep decline in brightness for many months, in fact, I haven't seen it with the naked eye at all for Corona Borealis is currently 'missing' a star. With time the carbon shell will disperse and the star will return to its normal brightness once more.

First star trail of the night using the 18mm lens, these are 25 second exposures at ISO1600 stacked together for approximately one hour. I actually like the yellow glow from light pollution on the right, you wouldn't think it came from a town if you didn't know the area, it looks like a sunset afterglow, in my view this adds to the scene.

10mm wide angle with a pano-style crop. From left to right the constellations are Cepheus, Lacerta, Lyra, Draco, Hercules, Corona Borealis and Serpens Caput. It was now after 02.00 and the ground we stood upon was covered in frost, I thought this church in moonlit snow with a crescent moon would make for a great festive scene. At this stage Paul was within the grounds shooting the church up close, I stayed outside as I liked this view so much.

High level cloud was beginning to infiltrate the stars, this was my last frosty image of the night, Vega made for a great beacon of light near the church spire. Behind us to the W the sky was covered in high cloud, we didn't see it coming, we just noticed that the stars had vanished, however all was good, we had found a beautiful location and ended up having a great time from yet another unexpected chance encounter during a random night shoot. I have a nice time lapse of this scene however its rather short so I will return again for another go.

August 2nd 2019, one of those nights when I just fancied a photo shoot, it had been a great NLC season however dark skies had now returned so I got in my first night shoot of the new season. I actually ended up at the north coast on a solo adventure, I ventured to Binevenagh and decided to shoot a time lapse of the statue at Gortmore viewing point. I was going to use two DSLRs, one tripod mounted and the other on my digislider. Twilight was beautiful and as the sky slowly darkened and the stars came out I got ready for my first lapse. The wind had fallen light and I sensed dampness in the air and got worried, my old friend dew began to form on everything. Soon the camera was soaked and I had to stop my time lapse, it was impossible to get even one exposure without the lens misting over, I admit I was very disappointed. Then out of nowhere a fog inversion began to form, it approached as a spooky white blanket over the sea and began approaching at an alarming speed, the visual sight of the fog inversion with stars above and the lights of Donegal below looked a remarkable sight.

I began taking exposures to capture this moment however the dampness and blowing water droplets and light reflections on the lens killed what could have been a great photo opportunity. The fog engulfed me and despite having my trusty head torch on I found it difficult to find my way back to the van. I drove home with my tail between my legs however the further inland I went the better the sky became, soon I was under stunning clear skies, there was still no wind and the air felt less damp, I wondered could I shoot something else on the road back and rescue this night. I drove through Swatragh and spotted the local church, I recalled trying to shoot a time lapse there last year which was hampered by cloud so I decided I would give it another go so I parked up and quietly made my way into the church grounds. It was the early hours of the morning on a week night and the atmosphere was deathly silent, I eventually found a composition I liked and began shooting a time-lapse/star trail, this is one of the test stills with the northern circumpolar stars visible, that's Arcturus on the left with Corona Borealis and once again variable RCrB visible at mag +6 and behaving itself.

As the camera took exposure after exposure I crouched down on the ground and sat in silence, it was very peaceful here and a little spooky, my imagination was starting to run wild as I entertained thoughts of phantoms floating over the head stones, at one point I could have swore I heard foot steps on the ground beside me yet I was the only person there. I tried to occupy my mind by looking up at the stars, so I did what's known as a dome search, where I scan with the naked eye the entire celestial dome examining every constellation and the position and brightness of the stars I had put to memory just to make sure nothing new had taken place. This is a worth while habit every clear night because some unexpected celestial event could have just happened waiting for you to make your own personal discovery.

Imagine if a bright Nova or Supernova had erupted, or a faint comet suddenly flared in brightness to become visible with the naked eye, you might not discover such a spectacle these days but if you seen it first without hearing about the discovery on the internet then that would make for an unforgettable experience and would certainly be a feather in the observer's hat. Major discoveries aside there are always transient phenomena waiting to be seen, passing satellites, the ISS, air glow, or even a fireball, indeed, I had watched perhaps 18 meteors since I arrived here, some of which were early members of the Perseid meteor shower due to peak ten days later. By 03.00 I ended the shoot, my lens was free from dew and I had a very pleasant time to myself with this quiet church for company. This is the complete star trail, I was more than content how it turned out. Oh, by the way, those foot steps I heard turned out to be a cat the entire time.

August 12th 2019, this was a pleasant warm Summer's day, an unstable Wly flow was expected to generate a few hours and thunderstorms later in the day, especially over the NE of the country. Roisin was off on holidays and I had a commissioned photo job to do at Kinbane so we decided to make a day of it. We packed lunch and hit the road, I had planned to arrive at Kinbane for golden hour that evening and I hoped we might get to see some nice clouds while heading to the job, if not, then it would still be a wonderfully sunny day to enjoy. Once on the coastal route a lovely updraught fired up in the heat, the central tower began to grow solid and rather tall and new towers formed along its flank, it seemed to get better and better with time, we had it in view through the windscreen as we drove along the beautiful scenic road with the ocean and Rathlin Island to one side and lush fields with this developing cell on the other. Eventually it got to the stage I wanted to get an image but we couldn't find a view without hills or trees obstructing the clouds, eventually a small lay by appeared and we pulled over somewhere close to the Causeway. This was 10mm wide angle, the cell looked nice and contrasty over a freshly cut field and was moving away from us fast.

I waited for a gap in the traffic then ran across the road, climbed up the steep grassy embankment, and got another shot of it over the field, this time at 18mm for a closer look. I have a thing for convection, I just love these kind of clouds, especially in good light, storm clouds are like a red flag to a bull for me, when I see them I have to stop and get images, its in my nature, I can't switch it off and I never would want to, after all, convective weather can be the most photogenic of all weather phenomena.

Back on the other side of the road with the wide angle, I just had to get a memory image of the cell and my van, shameless self promotion I know. Roisin was enjoying herself out with her phone taking images of the convecton too and savouring the sunshine.

We followed it along the coastal route and watched as more cells formed on its flank, we passed a field with round bales of hay and Roisin suggested they would make for great foreground with the clouds, I couldn't have agreed more, we pulled in at the first chance we got and together we ran into this field for shots. I remember feeling so warm and close in this field, sweat was forming all over me but I was loving it, you can see one updraught beginning to form an anvil and quite a dramatic dark base, as usual I watched it carefully for funnel clouds. I wished I could have shot a time lapse of this scene however if I wanted to make Kinbane for golden hour I couldn't stay too long. The photo shoot at Kinbane was a total success, at sunset looking NE we could see these same cells far off in the distance with a line of anvils sheared forward with mammatus forming, they made for a lovely visual scene over the headland at Kinbane, I was amazed there was no thunder from them, they sure looked the part.

August 28th 2019, a slight risk of storms, a classic low instability high shear set up with 200 CAPE and 30 knots of deep layer shear for organization. I was in Cookstown this day watching radar just in case. By early afternoon a single shower formed and developed a red core, as it slowly propagated E it grew in size and intensity and formed a white core near Omagh, it began to exhibit a sheared profile and took on the classic Eagle wing form on radar, as it crossed the high terrain of the Sperrins it produced a brief moment of c-g lightning, then began to move into E. Tyrone and was making a beeline for the region between Cookstown and Dungannon. I looked out the west-facing window and saw the sunny sky darken as heavy clouds approached, I got in the van and drove out the road into the countryside, I wanted to try an image of the cell with the drone so I made sure I was 150m from a congested area. I got in the air and observed the storm approaching through my tablet screen, it wasn't spectacular however it did have a weak shelf cloud along the leading edge. I felt rain drops on my head due to outflow wind approaching so I landed the drone and took shelter.

A period of intense rainfall followed then the storm cleared, no thunder this time however it was still nice to experience a low topped strongly sheared cell on a warm Summer's afternoon. In the clearance the sun broke out and a gorgeous rainbow formed, I got the drone back up for a look, hovering at 100m in altitude. This one section of primary rainbow was intense and the light on the landscape was absolutely gorgeous, this isn't photo shopped, just straight off the drone and unedited, I shot several images and video sequences which made my day.

This was facing E at the northern most section of the cell, the storm was moving E away into the distance, at this moment in time the intense precip core was passing over Lough Neagh and still showing a large area of red on radar. I just loved the contrast between rain and countryside, the light and colour was beautiful, just goes to show that even weak cells can produce photo opportunities when the light is good.

August 12th 2019, Roisin and I were out storm chasing early in the day in Co. Tyrone, we had visited Davagh Forest to check out progress on the construction of the new observatory. By early afternoon a line of convection had formed over the Sperrins with precip breaking out, once again the light and contrast was fabulous, I got the Mavic 2 Pro up to take this aerial image of the lead cell which was showing some signs of weak shear, the precip was being vented to the left of the dark updraught base, below the base itself was a small lowering forming in the gust front air caused by condensation of water vapor from the growing precip core. It looked cool over the lush landscape not far from Beaghmore Stone Circles.

August 18th 2019, Roisin and I where spending the weekend in Belfast, Roisin was driving and we had just arrived in the city, I was ever conscience of the weather because there was sufficient CAPE for thunderstorms and I wanted an excuse to be outside the city centre so I could keep an eye on the sky. We decided to check out the Titanic Quarter area as I wanted to see a bulk carrier at berth within the harbour. As we made our way there a brilliant line of robust convection erupted near the city and began to reach encouraging heights, I was taken back by how crisp the clouds were, we couldn't get stopped so I snapped this one through the window using the phone.

By this stage even Roisin was getting impressed by the convection so as soon as the car stopped we were out getting images, I used my DSLR for this one, quite a dramatic scene with the dark updraught against the Titanic building, I set-up the tripod on the grass and shot a time lapse of the cell moving away. DSLR taking one image per second, anyone one who knows me will tell you I'm not a fan of cities at all, I simply don't like being closed in by tall buildings, I like to be able to see the sky and have a good open horizon, and of course as little light pollution as possible, this is why I prefer being in the countryside and coastal areas. That being said it was a change of scenery and a bit of a novelty being here. Even though I was in the city I had the camera shooting time lapse of this cell within seconds as I had been so versed in doing so on a daily bases back home, this was like second nature to me, I laughed inwardly because I felt a little like Crocodile Dundee when he arrived in the big city, shooting the convection was the country person coming out of me, the towering clouds made me feel like I was back home, does any of this make sense to you?

Last but not least is a scene from inside Davagh Forest, on this night I had teamed up with John Fagan to spend a glorious night under the stars. The sky was exceedingly good and the forest cleansed the air and provided us with the nature fix we needed. We both shot still images and time lapse of the night sky here, I was shooting with two cameras, John was shooting time lapse with a DSLR and taking high ISO stills with his mirrorless set-up. We shot a lot of time lapse and observed many meteors, however dew once again became our enemy later, it got to the stage we had to wipe our lenses after every exposure, our cameras and kit bags were soaked. We called it a night at approximately 02.30 BST and despite our battle with the elements we got time lapse material and a great night under the stars. This is a still image taken with the 50mm F/1.8 when twilight was merging into astronomical darkness with the camera facing between Scutum and Sagittarius within the denser region of the Milky Way with an abundance of open star clusters, gas clouds, absorption nebula and reflection and emission nebulosity.

Drone footage of the rainbow on the flanking area of the storm near Cookstown showing that vibrant primary bow sector with strong precip core and even a nice display of fanning anti-crepuscular rays.

Short DSLR time lapse of the Belfast updraughts and the Titanic building. I would have loved to have shot time lapse for longer at this location but at this hour of the day the area was too busy, I had people standing in front of my camera with their backs blocking the entire FOV despite seeing my camera there, this ruined the potential, however it was fun to try anyway. I hope you enjoyed this random collection of miscellaneous images from over the last few months, there are many more which didn't make the list however I might do a sequel to this report later in the year, once again thanks very much for reading and keep looking up.


Martin McKenna

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