Sunday, 28 December 2014

Christmas cheer

Even before the `Christmas Star' people have been looking to the skies, and the interest has become even greater since the arrival of digital photography. On Christmas eve I finally managed to capture some photos of the International Space Station. Bang on time, 5.20 pm it came over Sandwick very low heading towards to the moon from west to east. In Shetland it was a lot lower than down in England. 

The white line (ISS) is in fact travelling at over 22,000 mph and has been manned for just over 14 years. Its amazing that it has clocked up more than 1.5 million miles, that's the equivalent to 57, 161 orbits around the earth.
The white line effect hides the fact that it is larger than a six bed roomed house and weighs 925,000 pounds and has 8 miles of wires inside.

Pleiades shines in the night sky even through the light pollution (just to the top right of the house).
The aurora has been on a off for the last few days but cloud as usual has been a problem. In Shetland the Aurora is known as the `Merrie Dancers ' as they move across the sky. These photos taken on a very cold night looking towards Cunningsburgh
Estimated kp readings have been at 4-6 which means the the Aurora had been visible even in northern England, providing there was no clouds  present. In Whalsay conditions seem to have been better than the rest of Shetland judging by the photos that have been produced.
Still looking forward to seeing the amazing colours - reds & purples and a wider area when cloud isn't present. Sometimes the best way of finding the Aurora, is to point a camera to the north , the camera sensor can pick out the colours far better than our eyes, especially when any light pollution is present.
We started to go over towards Bigton but snow had fallen and it was becoming icy, someone further north in Shetland hit a patch of black ice which sent the car spinning 360 degrees. Its been unusual for Shetland to have these icy conditions but at least the skies are clearer.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Time Please- Intervalometer

Taking photos of the night sky involves long exposures and with most cameras only going down to 30 seconds exposure it means that you have to use some other means of controlling the time. Using a Timer remote control is the best way, this is also know as a intervalometer  which then enables you to control the exact length of time the shutter is open.

I would normally set the control unit up before going out to save time, although the display does light up so you can see what you are doing out in the field. In addition I should point out that it doesn't have an off switch so make sure you take the batteries out when you have finished otherwise you will have flat batteries when you come to use it again.You can normally pick these up for around £20 but wouldn't advise the cheapest ones.

You can also use the control to take long exposures without setting it up. Just slide the button up into the lock position then you can set the camera up for continuous shooting say at 30 seconds on the caera at f/4 for star trail photos. Having taken around 100 photos use Star Trails free software to combine them all into one photo

Shetland is having a lot of very unsettled weather with numerous gales hail snow and rain so getting out to take any photos is very difficult. I am hoping for a more settled 2015 and plenty of opportunities to get out to do some night photography.

Have a great Christmas and hope you get some clear still skies near you.Thanks again for looking at this blog, why not try my other Shetland blogs:

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Courses available

I will be running the following adult education classes in Lerwick

Introduction to Nature (Course code AL115)
Starts 19 January 2015 fr 6 weeks  9.30- 12.30

Last date for booking 10 December 2014

Digital Photography for Beginners (Course code AL116)
starts 2 March for 6 weeks f 2015 9.30-12.30 

Intermediate Digital Photography (Course Code (AL117) 
starts 27 April 2015 for 6 weeks   9.30-12.30


Digital Photography for Beginners (Course code AL119)
starts 2 March 2015 for 6 weeks 1.45- 4.45pm

Intermediate Digital Photography  (Course code AL120)
starts 27 April 2015 for 6 weeks 1.45-4.45 pm

Saturday, 29 November 2014

A Chance

On Tuesday the sunset was superb, very red which led me to believe that this might be a good night for an aurora as the moon was but just a sliver, a waxing crescent only 13 % full, of so little in the way of moon light pollution

Checking the Aurora forecast it was indicating above average solar activity, possibly to KP 4 which should be visible from Shetland providing the sky is clear. It was a question of keeping an eye on the alerts and be ready to out at short notice. My intention was to go north above Cunningsborough the place giving light pollution problems in the past, that would leave Gulberwick then Lerwick further north around 6 then 8 miles away.

I had not done any recces around here so it would be guess work where would be best. Need to add this to my day list of venues to visit. I wouldn't have time to go far. I charged the batteries and prepared my kit, which included the dew busting kit.

On Monday the strongest solar flare was early, around 9 pm which was good but its seems that no one photographed it judging by the lack of photos on various Shetland facebook sites and even though I was out I didn't see it either.

 So back to Tuesday which indicating a KP 4 so off I went spending 3 hours out and again no aurora. You just never know so you can use the predictions as an indication but no guarantee of seeing anything, just go out and enjoy the night, there is always something to see even if you don't manage any photos. I was just setting up to do some star trails but cloud moved in and I only managed a couple of photos- o well there is always next time.

Just to show you how the alerts work, on Wednesday it was estimated at KP 3 between 9.00- midnight, yet the actual reading was a very low KP 0.33 at 10.30 pm.

Check this out:

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Moon Colour

When ever you see the moon it is compelling, you just have to look at it. The brightest light in the sky is hard to miss. You can on occasion see the moon in a different light or colour

                                                             Using different lenses and camera- see below for full info
                                                                                 Nikon D7100 + 800mm = 1600 mm
                                        D300 + 500 mm = 750 mm 
                                                                                              Setting as below
                                                                             Nikon D7100 + 800mm lens = 1600 mm
                                              D300 + 200 mm lens = 450 mm

When photographing the moon it is often better to start when its not a full moon, there is shadow say when its a 1/2 moon. Again here in Shetland the moon is also out during the day and it makes a nice change to catch it when its BLUE.

The best option to photograph the moon is to mount your camera on a tripod and use a cable release to reduce vibration. I manually focus the lens as in poorer light the auto focus doesn't sometime connect. Try ISO 200 to keep the noise down to a minimum and this will give you a setting of about 1/100 @ f/11.  You could also try high or lower settings as it all depends on how dark your site is, how clear the moon is and in what phase and where you are located.

Use the longest lens you have at least a 300 mm but longer if possible. Using a 300 mm lens on a DX camera (cropped sensor) will give you 1.5 x the length so equivalent to a 450 mm lens. I use a Nikon D300 and  a D7100 which has a built in tele-converter giving you 1.3 x + 1.5 x lens so using the longest lens I have this is a D7100+ 800 mm lens = 1600 mm equivalent giving a close up of the moon

Friday, 31 October 2014

Lights in the sky

If you believe every weather forecast you would never get out. For the last two days it has forecast overcast nights with showers but when i looked out it was completely clear with the stars shining brightly.

So Wednesday night, same sort of forecast but the weather during the day had been good, contrary to the day forecast. I decided that tonight was the night and prepared to go out somewhere around Sandwick . The weather was more that perfect for Shetland, clear, cold and very still only 2 mph. It was colder than forecast as the car dashboard warned of ice, so below 3 degrees.

In addition to the weather the moon was only a sliver and the cloud that was about, dimmed the moon light. While I set up i could see a pocket of cloud drifting in but as luck would have it it moved west and missed Sandwick.

I always do a test shot first at a high ISO just to check what will be in view. Pointing north would always catch some lights from nearby houses but I wanted a star trail shot of the church at Sandwick It was becoming cold and the dew point was low, enough that you could see dew on the car within the time I had set up. This required my new dew buster kit which had arrived from various points around the world.

The battery from China, the dew wrap from America and a connecting lead from Australia. I charged the battery prior to going out but I don't know whether it is fully charged or not as the colour and intensity of the red light does change, even after six hours- the recommended charge time is one hour.

Connecting up the new kit i slipped the battery pack into a small pouch and hung it over the tripod. Setting the Tokina 11-16 mm lens to 11 mm i started taking 30 second exposures at F/4 ISO 500. I rattled off 68 frames and combined with dark frames to produce the following shots. Still not fully happy so will try again soon.

While the camera did its own thing I got the binoculars out and scanned the sky, three meteorites shot passed all very bright. This is from the Taurid meteor shower visible from the 20 Oct - 30 November (around 10 per hour) with its peak on the 5 November.

 I picked out the milky way without any aid, the dusty lane of stars stretching across from East to West, I wouldn't have been able to see this in Sheffield. Pleiades looked inviting, its is a very bright cluster of stars easily picked out in the south east sky. Cassiopeia , the distinctive M shape could be seen directly over head, all good targets for future night sessions . Around 9.30 pm when the clouds had reduced in the north, a faint aurora was seen for around 5 minutes.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Weather or not !

If you look at any weather forecast for Shetland you often find a black cloud, sometimes with rain stuck over the islands. It doesn't matter how many different one you look at the all seem to say the same. This goes for the night forecast, overcast with showers have been indicated for the past few nights yet its been clear for the most part, the stars shinning brightly.

The aurora forecast for last Tuesday was only 3 kp at the best yet by 8.30 pm a number of people had made comments on face book that they were seeing traces of the aurora. I headed down to Leebitton the nearest dark location, the moon was small so only the Cunningsburgh lights to contend with.

I could see a green glow between the clouds, and the light seem to be pulsing and getting stronger, photos confirmed that this was our first Shetland aurora, we did see one in Sheffield in February. Cloud started to thicken to the north which was a pity as we wanted to see more, but this is how auroras are here one minute gone the next.

In this case the aurora continued but we couldn't see it, about an hour later it cleared again but we were back home then and found out that in fact the forecast had been upgraded to a 4.67 kp (Shetland is normally around 4.0 kp),this continued into the early hours. At least we have seen one and are hoping for a better view next time.

                                                                              UFO's or they could be reflections

I am looking for a dark site within a 15 min drive, so the search continues I have a few sites I want to check out in the next few weeks.

I was surprised how closely the sun then the moon rises in Shetland. recently the sunrise was 7.52 am the moonrise at 12.25 pm,
                                                                                 Night sky above Sandwick church

Typically when a high aurora alert comes through the remnants of the Hurricane started hitting Shetland. Around 10 pm on Monday at least a 5 kp came through, but no chance of seeing it with thick cloud and rain which would only get worse. Again this weekend, with no moonshine, severe gale force winds prevented any photography

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Milky Way

It was great to at last get out under the stars the other night. At last a clear night but a very windy one with guest up to 27 mph , difficult for photography. We went down to a more sheltered and darker location than where we are staying as the streetlights are very bright.

Finding a sheltered location proved a bit more difficult than expected but a horse box provided some cover. Deep Sky photography was out of the question so i concentrated on photographing the Milky Way which was showing very well.
                                                                                             Still prefer colour, what do you think?

Its just amazing how clear it is in Shetland, thinking back to earlier in the year when we lived in Sheffield it was just impossible to get away from the bright lights of Sheffield and Manchester. Even after an hours drive to a remote spot in Derbyshire the glow could still be seen.

In Sandwick some glow was visible but it was 100 times better than down south, I am sure that a better dark sheltered site could be found so I will set about looking for one close by. No aurora was expected with only a KP of 2 (Shetland is around a 4.5 KP) and the moon was only around 1/2 lit .

Setting up my Nikon D7100 with the superb Tokina 11- 16 mm wide angle lens you can get a fair bit of sky in view. With the wind gusting i limited photos to around 8 seconds on ISO 3200 and shielded the tripod as best i could with my body.

When you eyes have adjusted to the darkness more and more stars become visible and the definite cloud of the milky way showing well stretching east to west. These photos have been processed in Lightroom 4. Noise is always a problem at these high ISO speeds but you need this to bring out the stars, leaving the lens wide open.helps to draw in as much light as possible.

I use Topaz De-noise which helps while keeping detail in the photo.

While i was dismantling things a satellite passed over. If you want to know whats going on and coming over then the new website will help, you can even set Shetland as your location.
The Milky Way covers around 120,000 light years across the sky.  It has between 200-400 billion stars although from any one point you can only see around 2,500 stars. You need a dark site with no moon to see the best of the Milky way, the dust makes up 10-15% of the total area, the rest are stars.

If the sky is clear on the 21/22 October it may be worth looking out for the remnants of Halley's Comet, this is just cosmic dust the size of coffee granules which will burn up in the earths atmosphere. The real comet doesn't return until 2061 when i will be long gone. It will be no where near  as good as when it past by in 1985/86

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Sunsets but no aurora

After moving into our new house in Sandwick, we have been watching some great sunsets. Now that the evenings are drawing in i am getting prepared for some night photography and hopefully an aurora or two.

The moon, now full has been giving great views, even from our living room. It looks so sharp here where the quality of light and air is a photographers dream. You can plan for everything except the weather, which is the main thing.

Getting your equipment ready just in case the cloud clears is all part of the thrill of night/ sky photography. The last night sessions took place in Sheffield, up on the moors where unbelievably I actually saw the aurora.

On Tuesday, this week, I received an alert that the aurora may be visible from Shetland so we headed out to a darker place down near the sea at Sandsayre, just round the corner from our house. The expected level of activity was supposed to peak around 9.45 - 10 pm but nothing could be seen due to cloud. This was around 4.5 KP.

On the 12th  the activity  increased to around  6.5 KP at 3 am (Shetland is around 4.5 KP) The higher the KP number the further south you can see the Aurora (weather permitting). We went out at 10 pm but it was cloudy (57%) all falling in a northerly direction. No doubt I will be kicking myself when i see some of the photos of people staying out until the early hours.

So back to planning, certain things need to fall in place, no moon (light pollution), no cloud, no wind, time & no commitments .All a big ask, but at least i have time to seek out some dark sites, should be many more than Sheffield. The wind is always a problem so a sheltered site is also needed.

I also need to DEW heater so a little research is needed.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Meteorites and sky observing

An arrival of any meteorite will have gone through the atmosphere at a great rate of speed, friction brings the surface temperature to 7,000 degrees and it starts to break up and vapourises and melts. As it nears the earth it is still breaking up and fragments are scattered over a large area but the larger stones hit the ground at speed and form impact craters.

It’s very difficult to estimate how many hit the earth as many are destroyed in the high atmosphere, and those that do are usually very small and never located. Some damage has been recorded where small pieces have hit roofs, even a boat was hit in Japan in 1991, but no one has ever been killed   

When you think that two thirds of all meteorites are lost in the sea, then the other third, about 6 meteorites a year are over land and might be seen and recovered.

Impact craters can be found around the globe and on other planets. Larger planets such as Earth have around 150 craters while the Moon and Mars, although smaller have many thousand. On the Moon there is no erosion, no soil movement so any crater unless it is destroyed by a bigger crater will stay in place for ever.
Some famous meteorite hits include the Tunguska explosion on 1908, where 2,000 Km of forest lay flat, the Arizona hit which cause a crater 1,300 m wide and 175 m deep and of cause the meteorite that hit Shetland!!!!

The Shetland one is less well known and hit the St Magnus bay area. In the middle of the bay is a deep depression filled with sedimentary rock much softer than the rocks that we find surrounding it in Shetland.
Over the past two million years ice has eroded it leaving a hole twice as deep as the surrounding seabed. But what made the older and deeper hole found in these harder rocks, could have been a meteorite? (Shetland library)
                                                                                     St Magnus Bay

Only one way for it, we need to borrow a Tardis and travel back in time, luckily I managed to find one just up the road.

Observing the night sky takes a lot of dedication and having a good dark site and equipment is a must, that why in the 19th Century Arthur Nicholson built an observatory at Brough Lodge on Fetlar. Today you can find one of the lenses to the telescope at the Fetlar Interpretative centre.

                                                                                   Brough Lodge observatory

I have not found many clear skies on the east side of the mainland and those that have occurred have been plagued by the wind. At the Fetlar observatory he would have had protection from the wind in the tower but may have suffered with a limited number of viewing nights.

The other night it was clear with a lovely orange Moon and a great sunset.

If you are into astronomy then please let me know which part of Shetland you view from and roughly how many nights a year you can observe. Back in Sheffield some astronomers only had 12 viewing nights a year due to the weather and other commitments.