A glimpse of Mayo’s dark skies ๐ŸŒŒ

Mayo is Ireland’s only dark sky park, internationally recognised for its low levels of light pollution. Basically it’s super starry. Here are a few images from the front door (the only door) of my family’s cottage in northern Mayo.

Night photography: The Pleiades

On the evening of Wednesday 19th January at about 21:00, I spent some time photographing the winter night sky. I was in my West Sussex garden, where there is a surprisingly good clarity of starlight despite the nearby town and railways, etc.

A few nights before when it was a bit cloudier I spent the time just looking through binoculars at the stars. As someone new to stargazing, I was amazed by the gains made from looking through glass. In among the cloud were hundreds of tiny stars where nothing appeared to the eye. This will sound quite dim to more seasoned observers, but the difference made was a joy.

One little cluster I had my eyes on was the Pleiades. This appears to the naked eye like a dusting of light, to the east of Orion. Looking through binoculars gives much greater clarity. On Wednesday night I used my camera to get some images, later cropped and edited a bit in Lightroom.

The Pleiades, from West Sussex, approx. 21:30, 19-1-2022 (Olympus E-M5 MIII + 45mm f1.8 lens (cropped)

The Pleiades is made up of seven larger stars, giving it another name of the ‘Seven Sisters’. That’s the third time that name is used, to my knowledge, in place-naming alongside the Seven Sisters cliffs near Eastbourne in Sussex, and the main road in north-east London. The Seven Sisters road is named after elm trees which are no longer there.

Pablo Carlos Budassi, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The above photo by Carlos Budassi is obviously not as good as my attempts (JOKE). It does, however, help to illustrate this star cluster beautifully. I’m not sure of the camera, lens, settings or editing required to produce this image but it is of astonishing quality. Also, how good of Carlos to share this image with Wikimedia Commons so people can use it. Thank you, Carlos.

Dbachmann, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

The first known depiction of the Pleiades comes from the Bronze Age as seen in the image above. Wikipedia titles the image: “The Nebra sky disk, dated circa 1600ย BC. The cluster of dots in the upper right portion of the disk is believed to be the Pleiades.” Indeed, there are seven of them.

Ptolemy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The name ‘Pleiades’ is said to come from the Ancient Greek and is related to sea-faring rather than the Seven Sisters.

Thanks for reading.

Night photography

Latest from the Blog

Night photography: January stars

These long, cold nights are a good chance to spend some time exploring the night sky. In mid-January we’ve had a number of gloriously sunny days and clear nights. After one of the dreariest Decembers on record in the UK, with only an averaged total of 27 hours of direct sunlight, it is very welcome.

The clear nights have given me so much to photograph: starry skies followed by frosty, foggy mornings with beautiful light.

Tonight (14th January) I spent a bit of time in my garden with my full-frame DSLR and a 50mm lens with an f1.4 aperture. That’s a very bright lens, meaning it collects a high level of light which is very good for astrophotography. My garden is packed in among several others, so when one neighbour a couple of doors down pops out, they usually see me as a man standing there in the dark. It can be quite awkward when you say things like, “I’m trying to get a photo of Uranus”.

I couldn’t even manage that. Here’s what I did get:

Orion is my go-to constellation. I find it easy to identify and does help to anchor my eyes in the night sky.

Hoping the diagram above makes sense to you. Orion’s belt is the most obvious part of the constellation. Don’t mess with Orion!

My 50mm lens is bright but it doesn’t reach very far. That said I did crop part of the image to capture part of the Orion nebula (‘Gt. Neb.’ in the image above).

This is one of two new constellations for me that I photographed: Gemini. It’s probably not that easy to make out but it covers the whole of the image. I think also that I tilted the camera to much which makes the two anchoring stars on the left hand side (Pollux and Castor) out of sync with the diagrams. Come on, it was dark out there!

Gemini is Latin for ‘twins’, representing Greek mythological figures Castor and Pollux.

The second of the two new constellations for me was the head of Hydra, which can be seen as the clearest collection of stars here.

I was amazed to read that Hydra is the largest constellation in the night sky. It’s not surprising when you later see the diagram and how huge it is.

Thanks for reading.

Recent posts

Night photography: the empty town

West Sussex, January 2021

In 2008 I began experimenting with urban night photography. It shows how much things have changed for camera technology that I don’t even need a tripod now. Cameras today can capture much more light without reduce the image quality than they could in the 2000s.

As we’re now unable to leave the house for much other than essential things such as food and exercise, it’s drawn me closer to home. At this time of year I be looking to do some astro photography on these dark January nights. At the moment I can’t travel away from light pollution but I’m still trying to learn as much about the stars as I can. Maybe I will post some of those home images, it’s not like things are going to change anytime soon.

Usually this small town in West Sussex is bustling on a weekend night, with people visiting pubs and restaurants. On 10th January 2021 it was deserted but for people passing through.

Restaurants that you might once have been unable to book a table for were empty and only offering a remote delivery service. Note the disinfectant indoors and hand sanitiser outside on the menu table. A sign of the times.

Elvis is also staying at home.

These large stickers urge people to keep to the left, but it seems to have very little impact. You would need to completely redesign the townscape to make it work. This is going on for so long, you wonder if that will begin to happen, especially for new developements?

The local shopping centre was still open to visitors, though everything essential had closed for the day. I wonder if these handsanitising units will remain in place permanently now.

Christmas lights are perfect for practicing bokeh, the blurry circles created when the camera is out of focus.

Businesses have been hit hard by the pandemic, but I wonder if some local shops are doing better in places where people used to commute.

This local statue at least offers a sense of humour to passersbys. We need it.

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald: the swelling night sky

Midhurst astro - 6-11-2019 blog-2

Midhurst, West Sussex, November 2019

Nightfall. The traffic throbs white and red along North Street. The streetlamps light a line of trees penning the cars in against the buildings that crowd one side of the road. The illuminated frame of a church window stands between two black trees like a section of the Taj Mahal.

Iโ€™m here to drink in the swelling night sky. Above Midhurst the Plough sits like an advert for something half-formed or untranslated. As the night deepens more stars cluster around iconic constellations I canโ€™t put a name to.

People pass on a couple of occasions, one man greets me, his scotty dog with a green collar glowing around its neck in the dark. The night has not dimmed its senses, it seems enlivened, sniffing at the night with ears pricked up.

Midhurst astro - 6-11-2019 blog-4

Over the Rother, where it funnels past the Cowdray ruins, the moon draws up mist from the river, matched in the cloud that sits beneath its white beam. Who knows what could be creeping in towards me under that white veil.

Aeroplanes blink and roar in the sky, male pheasants clash in metal at the margins of the wet grasslands separating the Cowdray ruins from the Midhurst traffic. The stars seep through yet more.

Explore the Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: ancient oaks under the stars

Cowdray - 12-2-2019 djg-14

Cowdray Park, West Sussex, South Downs National Park, February 2019

Leaving work at five o’clock in the dark is never nice but it depends how you look at it. Inspired by the Dark Night Skies initiative, I made a stop off on my way home to see some stars. I have been photographing trees in the dark since about 2008, mainly of trees under street lamps in south London. It was something to do in those long, drawn out winter evenings. Since then I have started photographing trees in the daylight, too. Having had the chance to volunteer and work in woodland conservation has taught me a lot about trees and their ecology. Having moved away from practical woodland conservation in the day-to-day sense, though still leading the odd tree walk, I am reveling in photographing some of the trees that are found throughout Sussex. One of the trees I have had the pleasure of spending some time with is the Queen Elizabeth I sessile oak in the South Downs National Park. This tree is completely hollow and has perhaps been around for 1000 years.

Cowdray - 13-2-2019 djg-3

Photographing the same tree again and again isn’t always interesting for you or other people. A recent interest in the night sky (the fact I can now see it, being away from a city, rather than knowing anything beyond the moon and the plough) gave me the idea to use the early nightfall to try and photograph this amazingly old tree under the stars.

Cowdray - 13-2-2019 djg-4

The photos were taken with a wide angle lens and a tripod. I used my mobile phone torch to light the tree. The bright light above is the moon, something that plays havoc with night photography due to the fact it outshines many of the stars.

Cowdray - 13-2-2019 hi-res-5

The problem with my phone torch is that it goes off after a while so I had to trot back and forth to keep the light on. In this light the tree looks fleshy and bulbous, quite animal-like I think.

Cowdray - 13-2-2019 djg-7

When the mobile phone torch light did go out, this is how it looked. I like how the branches reach out to the stars and the astronomically-illiterate thought that they might get snagged in them.

Cowdray - 13-2-2019 djg-8

There are many ancient trees at Cowdray Park in West Sussex near Midhurst. It is almost a point of pilgrimage for people who love old trees and feel some kind of emotional connection to the eldest we have left. This oak has lost almost all of its heartwood and has sinewy remnants decaying inside the bark. I love the purple hue in this photo and the way the distortion of the 10mm wide angle lens warps the trees in the background. I love the rawness of the tree in itself and the stars touching the outstretched twigs.

 

Set: Night Lights

These pictures were taken in the winter of 2008. Darkness falls at about 4pm at its peak in London, and much of our wintry lives are spent indoors, at bus stops, in cars or under street lamps. In general, winter is a time for artificial light. I am intrigued by the old street lamps of London, many now disused because of environmental policy, but I’m also interested in their purpose. They light our safe passage at night, and in some cases are a little like light houses. I enjoy the way they light trees, accidentally, and how branches can sometimes look like limbs reaching out from an abyss. View this set on Flickr.

ยฉ Daniel James Greenwood, 2011